Jeanette Southwood is an esteemed engineer and leader in sustainable development. Courtesy of Jeanette Southwood.

Jeanette Southwood is currently the vice president of strategy and partnerships at Engineers Canada where she heads the team focused on the future of the engineering profession across Canada and abroad. Prior to this, she worked in consulting for twenty-six years, last leading the Canadian urban development and infrastructure sector and the global sustainable cities teams at Golder Associates Limited. Jeanette was the first visible minority woman to be made a principal at Golder. An inspirational role model, she is an accomplished professional and a dedicated leader and volunteer who has received numerous honours and awards, including earning the Professional Engineers Ontario Young Engineer Medal in 1997, the Province of Ontario's Leading Women Building Communities Award in 2013, the Ontario Professional Engineering's Engineering Excellence Medal, being named one of WXN Canada's Top 100 Most Powerful Women in 2015, and an honourary Doctor of Laws from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in 2017. In 2009, Jeanette was made a fellow of Engineers Canada and in 2014 was inducted as a fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering. 

Did you have any influential teachers in your early education? I remember in grade three starting to question whether some of the things that I had felt about myself in terms of my abilities, in math for example, were really true. Then I had a wonderful math teacher in grade four. That foundation of having an excellent teacher to inspire confidence in the students about their math abilities was a wonderful base. I also went to an all-girls high school — where the cost to attend was covered by the Ontario government up to grade eleven — and almost all of the teachers were female so I had the good fortune of having great female role models in terms of science, math, and other subjects.

Why did you decide to pursue engineering? When I was in grade thirteen, my friends and I were thinking about where we were going to apply to university. One of my best friends had been looking through the information that was available from our guidance counselor. She said to me, “This looks really interesting,” and showed me the University of Toronto (U of T) engineering curriculum. I looked at it and thought, “I like math and science and there’s also the opportunity to take some electives.” At that time, first year students could choose from a few options for electives including philosophy of engineering. I thought it was really interesting that U of T would include philosophy and other subjects beyond sciences and math in the engineering curriculum. I wasn’t ready to decide on my career path, so it was important to me to have a broad variety of courses from which to choose.

Why did you choose chemical engineering? I did not find my undergraduate years to be what I had expected. It was quite a challenging time. However, there was a chemical engineering professor that I got along with very well. I think it was evident to him that I may fall by the wayside. He said to me, “Chemical engineering is very broad, it will provide you with options. You should really think about persevering.”

What have you enjoyed most about being an engineer? The ever-evolving landscape. There is so much that someone can do as an engineer. There is so much need for what engineers do. People can see that it impacts the physical space — roads, subways, mines, bridges, buildings — but there’s not as much of an understanding of the social and economic implications of what engineers provide. For example, if engineers weren’t doing great work around water purification or wastewater management, there would be great impacts on society and the economy. Engineering provides the basis for many things, including a happy, healthy society — a society where everybody can contribute and participate.

Where do you believe you have made the biggest impact? I feel I made a big impact in the work that I did around global sustainable cities at Golder. There is research that indicates that by 2050 about seventy per cent of the world’s population will be in cities or in urban areas. We can already see that our world is not ready for that. My personal and professional interest was in some of the key areas and how we could best make a difference — like water, for example. How does that connect to economic security, food security, energy security, safety, poverty, and social unrest? Working in consulting, my team worked on projects that involved a wide range of clients, from government and large organizations to small communities. I and my team were able to make a difference by not only bringing the engineering aspects together but also the social and economic as well as the perspectives of professions like landscape architects, planners, sociologists, and others. That was very important to me.

Another area is the work that I am doing now at Engineers Canada. I have many opportunities to give back to the profession. Through my work, I’ve been involved in government consultations that have resulted in changes that make a real difference in engineers’ lives. Through Engineers Canada’s Awards program, it has also been a privilege to shine the spotlight on my fellow engineers for their many accomplishments. I also feel proud to work to expand the suite of partners who work with Engineers Canada to maximize the economic well-being of the members of our great profession and their families. Some of my past volunteer work with PEO included being on their awards committee, and one of the roles that I took on was to expand our external honours program. We took people who had won PEO service awards or OPE Awards, and we leveraged our awards program by nominating the recipients for other awards to bring greater attention to the recipients and to the contributions of engineers nationally and internationally — for example the Order of Canada. I feel very proud of that work because I think there are so many stories of what engineers are doing — stories of innovation, of contribution, of being good citizens and good volunteers — that aren’t heard enough. It is important to celebrate the successes.

What obstacles or challenges have you faced in your career and how have you overcome them? Being in a male-dominated environment as an undergraduate student was a challenge. I was very shy. I was fortunate to have great fellow students, and the environment eventually became more comfortable for me. Another challenge would have been some aspects of organizational culture and the assumptions about what a woman or a member of a visible minority can and cannot do, what is and is not an appropriate role, and also the assumptions and stereotypes about what a leader looks like. Sometimes I had to ignore it, pretend that it didn’t exist, try to understand it better, or find my allies, champions, and sponsors; sometimes I had to oppose it directly. I needed sponsors, senior people who believed that I could take on leadership positions. I fostered strong relationships with people who believed in me. The friends that I have had over the years have provided me with great steadying advice. I have a strong belief in myself that I can do it, but as much as we believe in ourselves, there is always a need for that to be reinforced. It is important to have friends inside and outside of engineering. Those inside engineering understand what the road is like and the ups and downs. The women who are outside engineering can give a different perspective and ask, “Why does it have to be that way?” or give advice based on something they have done in their careers.

What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in STEM? Keep an open mind. There are many opportunities available to women in engineering and STEM. With an engineering education, there will be so many opportunities; opportunities to give back in many ways, opportunities within engineering, opportunities in law or politics, opportunities in medicine, opportunities in business or beyond. I would like young women to see engineering as just the start of their journey — a journey that may keep them in engineering or a journey that may lead them elsewhere. I hope young women today will have the strength to believe in themselves because there are parts of society that are still not supportive of women in non-traditional roles and have difficulty envisioning women or visible minorities in leadership roles. On the personal front, I would also advise any young person to think very carefully about what their expectations are of the partner they choose. It is not only the workplace that will be an influencer of success when a woman has a child. There has to be support at home.

Why do you believe women are still underrepresented in engineering? The perception, and sometimes the truth, that it takes a Herculean effort to be a woman engineer is a barrier. Another is the perception or knowledge of certain workplaces and how welcoming or unwelcoming they are. The culture in some workplaces is not diversity friendly and is not inclusive. That leads to questions of, “Is this a place for me? What are the opportunities?” In chemical engineering where there is a relatively large proportion of women, young people have the benefit of seeing a range of stories, some that aren’t happy but many that are. There’s a more comprehensive picture of what it is like to work in that area. That has a synergistic effect in terms of attracting more people to that area.

How can we nurture female leaders in STEM? A big challenge continues to be around the perception of women leaders. I recall the social media movement around “I look like an engineer.” I thought that campaign was great and I remember thinking that there needs to be something similar around looking like a leader. For example, I was speaking with a headhunter about women on boards and he said, “Frankly, there is a physical stereotype regarding what a board member should look like — in gender, ethnicity, height, etc. — and it’s very tough for someone who doesn’t fit that stereotype to break through.” We need to broaden our idea of what we believe leaders look like and how they operate. We need to say, “I look like a leader”. Also, beyond mentors, we need sponsors for female leaders in STEM.

How can we encourage innovation? From my perspective — speaking as someone who started out as a very shy person — I find that for me to be innovative, I have to spend time alone. I need that quiet time to synthesize, to bring together the seed of an idea, to envision it, and to reflect on: “What are the outcomes? What is the potential end point?” And then, innovation must include other people, the brainstorming, collaboration, and the back and forth. Golder took some of my colleagues through a course based on Stephen Covey’s The Speed of Trust. There needs to be a foundation of trust, a comfort level, to be able to develop something new, to be able to apply and expand on innovation, to share ideas. If we’re not comfortable, if we’re not trusting, then we are not going to be able to share ideas that we might think are outrageous but that might actually make the difference.

Where do you believe you have been the most innovative in your work? Although I have been recognized for innovative technical work, where I feel I have made innovative breakthroughs is in collaboration, in bringing people together in new ways, in developing new approaches, going beyond traditional lines that limit who should be part of a discussion and looking at who else could be included or who else could be part of the development of the approach. When I think about the contributions I have made, some of the key areas have been around the collaboration piece and the partnership piece, bringing disparate groups together to create something brand new that never existed before. I think that innovation needs to be part of the everyday.

To read more about Jeanette and the other Women of Innovation, purchase the book here.

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